A/N: Holy crap you guys! I had no idea it had been this long since I last updated. I'm not dead and I'm not abandoning the story. I have been working on the story, just here and there, and mostly on parts that come later on. I'm so sorry, I have no real excuse.
Well, I didn't have one laptop completely die on me and then the second laptop (brand new!) almost died on me. But seriously. I should have had this done months ago and I can only sincerely apologize.
After I have finished NaNoWriMo, which has taught me a lot about writing discipline, I will finish this story completely and post in a more timely fashion. Thank you for sticking with me for so long. Now onto Chapter eight, which was a LOT of fun to write and introducing a favorite character of mine. Tell me what you think about him.
Gin's hand easily encompassed both mine and the brush, moving it in slow strokes across Mercury's glossy back.
"Like this," he said.
"I know how to brush a horse," I snapped. "I grew up on a farm."
It had been three days since that disaster in town, and a strange phenomenon was occurring. My hand felt acutely aware of everything - the calluses beneath Gin's every finger, his body heat warming the cool of my hand, the gentle grip of his fingers over mine - and yet it failed cause the usual discomfort of past experience.
Gin released my hand and pointed to a slightly puffy white scar on the flesh underneath his thumb. I missed the warmth of his hand. Even stranger.
"When you don't brush Mercury exactly the way he likes, there are consequences," Gin told me.
I eyed the stallion with new found respect. "A particular horse, is he then?"
Gin smirked. "Like someone else I know."
My ears suddenly picked up familiar hoof beats and rattle before I could voice my spectacular retort. A smile threatened to burst forth when I lifted my eyes and saw a small, azure Caravan emerge from the tree line.
I shoved the brush into Gin's hands and approached the caravan. A man roughly the age of my father sat in the driver's seat, reigns hanging loosely in his long fingers. Though grey streaked the temples of his inky black hair and lines crinkled around his piercing gray eyes, Aldan was no less handsome than I remembered as a child. From thirteen to fifteen I suffered from speech impediments, high blood pressure and increased heart rate on his every visit, much to my utmost mortification and his amusement. Thank the Lord I outgrew that long ago, but to this day I couldn't fight a smile when I saw him.
"Rihanna told me you left," I said, craning my head up to look at him.
Aldan shrugged. "Picked something up Ravendell. Consider it an early birthday present."
Birthday? It was my birthday already? Ah, that's right. My birthday occurred in early September - or was it late August? I needed to ask my mother for the exact date. Again.
"I'm guess from that puzzled expression that you forgot all about it," came Aldan's bemused voice.
"You forgot your own birthday?"
Gin appeared beside me, appraising me with raised eyebrows.
"She does so frequently," said Aldan, climbing down from the caravan.
"I can't be bothered to remember such insignificant details of a pointless celebration," I said.
Gin's expression turned horrified. "Insignificant? It's your birthday."
I rolled my eyes. "In theory the anniversary of my birth only applies to myself and I do not care for it. However that doesn't stop my mother from twisting it into some kind of celebration, purely for my embarrassment."
"You're supposed to celebrate your birthday!" Gin protested.
"It's a losing battle, friend," said Aldan. He stuck a hand out. "Since Rapunzel doesn't care for the manners her mother taught her, I'll introduce myself. I'm Aldan, an old friend."
Gin grasped Aldan's hand and shook it. "I'm Gin, a new one."
"Well met, Gin."
I rolled my eyes again. "I don't have time for pleasantries, Aldan. I believe you mentioned a present?"
"Impatient are we?" Aldan asked, amusement in his eyes. "Very well, then."
He disappeared into his caravan. Gin walked over and stroked Socorro, Aldan's mustang.
"So when is your birthday, exactly?" he asked me.
I shrugged. "I'm not sure. You'll have to ask my mother."
Gin shook his head at me, smiling. "You're the strangest person I've ever met."
"Once you're better acquainted with Aldan, I'll have you reassess that."
"I heard that," came Aldan's muffled voice from the caravan.
A moment later he reappeared, and dropped a tome of a book in my hands. Ancient Cretian Mathematicians and Their Contributions.. My eyes widened and I eagerly flipped the book open to the table of contents, which listed great minds such as Pitane, Eon, Zenosus, and Antheam plus many others I hadn't heard of.
"I think she likes it," I heard Aldan say, snapping me out of my reverie.
"It will suffice," I said.
Aldan grinned. "Don't play that game with me, darling. I saw the gleam in your eye. You're dying to make love to that book in your tower."
Gin's eyebrows raised at this remark, but I was used to hearing such things from Aldan.
"You didn't steal this, did you?" I asked instead.
"No of course not," said Aldan with a smile too wide and quick to be trustworthy. "They gave it away."
I'd wager my life against the validity of that statement, but I shrugged. "It makes no difference to me, it's in my possession now. If you'll excuse me, I have some reading to do. I'll see you in a few months, Aldan."
I turned to leave, but Aldan grabbed my wrist.
"Hold it right there, Rapunzel. I go through all that trouble to procure that stupid book for you and I don't get a hug of thanks in return?"
He held his arms open for a hug and I scowled at him. "No, you don't. You only request one to embarrass me."
Aldan turned to Gin. "She used to be sweet on me." he explained casually,
My cheeks flamed. "I did not!"
"She lies. Don't pay attention to her."
I glared my fiercest at Aldan and stalked to my tower, my blush encompassing my ears and the back of my neck as well.
Damn that man! He always knew exactly which words would humiliate me, and he fired them off with ease. I couldn't retaliate because nothing fazed that man. I fumed for a few minutes in my tower, hearing Gin and Aldan talking somewhere beyond my window. Then I turned my attention to my present, dragging out a few pieces of paper and flipping open to the first chapter on Clionides.
A crack of thunder interrupted my readings, so loud it shook the scribbled notes on my desk. A few drops of rain pattered before a veritable monsoon unleashed from the sky. I leapt to my feet and shoved my desk away from the window before the rain could ruin my books and notes. I slammed my shudders closed and locked them in place, and then ran into my bedroom to do the same.
Another crack of thunder sounded followed by a loud, incessant pounding on my door. Oh Lord. It seemed I had forgotten about someone. Well, there went my peaceful evening.
"Have patience! I'm coming!" I shouted as I crossed to the door. My fingers fumbled with the knob in the dim light before flinging it open. For a moment I only saw darkness; then lightning flashed, revealing a tall, dripping man resembling a drowned cat.
I sighed. "I suppose you want to come in," I said.
"It's a monsoon out there," said Gin, stepping inside. "For a moment I feared you wouldn't let me in."
"It was tempting. And careful where you're dripping," I snapped, pushing the stool covered in parchment clear from Gin's dripping clothes. "Go stand by the fireplace and don't move. I'll return in a moment."
I watched Gin walk to the fireplace to ensure he didn't drip on the books are scraps of parchment lying about before disappearing into my bedroom. I hunted around for the thick cotton cloth I used to dry myself after bathing, and grabbed a few candles before returning to my study.
I found Gin bent before the fireplace, attempting to light the cut logs he stacked with my flint and steel.
"Stop," I said. "You'll never get it lit that way."
I dropped the cloth on top of his head, and then took down a bottle off the mantle. Kneeling down before the hearth, I tapped a small amount of pinkish nectar over the logs. Then I took the flint and steel from Gin and sprayed a shower of sparks over the logs. Immediately the nectar set aflame, flaring brightly for a moment before settling into a steady glow. Gin jerked back, startled at the sudden fire.
"What is that?"
"Pyrric nectar. Grows near volcanoes," I explained. "Aldan smuggles it special for Rihanna from the Merrel Isles. Highly flammable," I added unnecessarily.
"You're not kidding," said Gin, his eyebrows raised. He rubbed his mop of hair with the towel, and I found the gesture oddly endearing. "I'd kill for some of that during my travels. Especially during –" He stopped suddenly, eyes wide with horror and towel still. "My pack!" "It's still out there!"
He started to get to his feet, but I stood up. "I'll get it. Where is it?"
"It's sitting against the tree beside Mercury," said Gin. "But I'll get it."
"And risk you dripping all over my books and papers? I think not. I'll return shortly," I told him and hurried out of the tower before he could protest.
I dashed across the clearing, getting thoroughly drenched, but slowed when I ducked into the forest. The rain still pelted down, but with considerably less force. I hastened to Gin's camp. The pack was leaning against the large oak Mercury was tied to, almost perfectly dry. I patted Mercury on his long nose - the oak tree offered almost as much shelter as my father's stables. Then I grabbed the pack and made my way back to the tower.
When I returned to my study, I set Gin's pack on my desk. Gin took one look at me and snickered.
"What?" I demanded.
"You look like a drowned cat," he said, tossing me the damp towel. I could see the wrinkles in his clothes where he'd wrung out the excess water.
I glared at him as I dismantled my buns. "Funny, I thought the same of you," I retorted, and proceeded to squeeze the water from my braids. I took a seat next beside him in front of the fire place, now crackling merrily and driving the chill from the tower.
Suddenly Gin cleared his throat.
"Shouldn't you change clothes?" he suggested, his voice sounding odd. "You could catch cold."
I snorted. "Nobody ever got sick from walking the rain. It's a misconception."
"You must be freezing though," Gin persisted.
"Not particularly. I'll dry out by the fire."
"I really think it's a good idea for you to change."
"What are you, my mother?" I snapped, but then I noticed Gin kept his gaze firmly transfixed on his shoes. His cheeks were flushed even though he faced away from the fire. I glanced down at myself and noticed my dress sticking to me like a second skin. My head jerked back up, a flush creeping up my neck.
I suddenly remembered all those times Gin stubbornly worked without a tunic, much to my mortification and pleasure. Was he now struggling with those same mix of emotions? Had I been a less modest person, I would have stayed and watched Gin squirm all evening, but I felt too self conscious to pull such a wicked act, and a bit chilly besides. I hurried into my room and changed into a green dress my mother sewed for me, and, after a moment's hesitation, grabbed a blanket before closing the door behind me. I returned to my spot by the fire, and handed Gin the blanket. He took it with a shocked expression.
"You're cold aren't you?" I said, embarrassed. "I don't have any dry clothes for you."
Gin smiled at me, and I felt that odd, fluttery feeling in my stomach again. "You're an angel, Rapunzel," he said, wrapping it around him.
"Don't insult me," I said, but the fluttery feeling intensified for a moment.
Gin turned so his right side faced the fire. The flickering light made his face glow warmly, shadows dancing across his cheek bones.
"So where can I get this – what did you call it? Pyron nectar?"
"Pyyric nectar," I corrected. "You can't buy it. It's not exactly. . . legitimate."
"Ah." Said Gin. "Aldan's not exactly legitimate, is he?"
"Not all the time, no," I said. "But he deals honestly with the rural populations. Most of his illegal trade is with Rihanna, getting rare or contraband ingredients for her."
"I like the fellow," said Gin. He wrapped the blanket closer around his shoulders. "He certainly knows how to get the better of you," he added wickedly. "Do you still have feelings for him?"
"Oh God!" I said, a flush creeping up my neck. Damn that man! "Not this again. I was thirteen, naïve and foolish. Aldan viewed the whole ordeal with hilarity. He used to say flirtatious things just to see me blush and stammer like an idiot. Unfortunately it didn't wear off until I was about fifteen. Not that that stops him from bringing it up when he's in need of a laugh."
Gin grinned at me and patted my shoulder in sympathy. "Don't be too embarrassed. I used to be sweet on my grammar tutor, Miss Analiese. She had to suffer months of atrocious poetry before I snapped out of it. Basil to this day still teases me about it."
I raised an eyebrow. "You wrote poetry?" I didn't bother hiding my disdain.
"Well, yeah," said Gin sheepishly rubbing the back of his neck in an adorable manner.
I inwardly slapped myself. From what abyss were these strange thoughts coming from? Perhaps I sat too close to the fire and the heat had gone to my head. Yes.
"So you don't think much of poetry, eh?" said Gin.
"I have very little regard for philosophy and it's derivatives – poetry and literature," I replied. "People wax philosophical about the human condition and other such nonsense and consider themselves intelligent, when they're nothing more than batty daydreamers. What good does a few pretty lines of words do for society? Science and mathematics improve the world around us, not fanciful stories."
This topic always brought out the fire in me and I'm afraid I glared at Gin as if daring him to argue. Aldan, a fervent reader himself, loved to play Devil's Advocate to Rihanna and I when he visited. He once gave me a book on Eastern Philosophy. I used it as fire starter that winter.
"Oh don't look at me," said Gin, laughing. "I'm not dumb enough to argue"
He stood up and walked about the room, stretching his legs. I watched him approach my desk, feeling slightly apprehensive. Gin peered down at the assortment of papers for a moment.
"What's this?" he asked, pointing at a piece of parchment.
I walked to my desk and followed his finger down to the equations I'd been playing with earlier. Inwardly I sighed in relief. Nothing important, then.
"Oh those," I said. "It's nothing, just testing Clionides' Theorem on the curvature of spheres. It's merely for amusement." Actually I'd been trying to discover the area of the world, but since I had insufficient data, it was nothing but guesswork. Fun guesswork, though.
"That's fun? Rapunzel, I've never seen such complicated math!"
Complicated? Clionides? I snorted. "You've obviously never seen complicated mathematics before. It's only a bit of geometry."
"I had the best scholars in the capital as my tutors, they never taught me this. I don't think they've even heard of Clionides. You've got to be some kind of genius."
Never heard of Clionides? Dear Lord, what kind of slapdash, deficient education did they subject Gin to?
"You should hang them for impersonation," I told him. "Any self respecting scholar with a brain knows of Clionides. Even Aldan knows about him, and he's a philosopher, for God's sake."
I started to gather the parchment to store away but Gin grabbed my hand. He looked down at the scribbles of equations and sketches of triangles for a moment. Heat seeped into my fingers, cold from my jaunt into the rain.
"Do you think you could teach me?" he said casually, keeping his gaze pinned on my hand.
"You want learn Clionides's Theorem?" Had I heard the man properly? Gin struck me as a student who always shirked his lessons, just as he shirked his palace responsibilities as a man, constantly jotting off and bothering innocent women in towers.
"Is that so surprising," he asked, meeting my gaze. I saw determination glint in them.
The corners of his mouth lifted, and that decided my answer.
"Well I suppose I can't leave your education so woefully incomplete," I sighed. "Hand me those papers and pull up that stool."
His eyebrows rose. "You're teaching me right now?"
"Me? Teach you while the storm lashes outside and we're trapped in here with nothing to do? Don't be ridiculous," I said, my sarcasm sharp enough to cut.
Gin laughed, and cleared the nearby stool of my scrap writing. I stored them in a drawer in my desk, while he pulled the stool up beside me. I tugged a fresh piece of parchment from the small stack on my desk.
"Now if what you told me about your pathetic excuse for a tutor is true, Clionides Theorem is far beyond your capabilities," I said, grabbing my quill and inkwell. "I'll start with Rudimentary Geometry. Can you tell me what you remember covering in your lessons?"
Gin stared up at the ceiling, thinking hard for a few moments. "Squares and rectangles. Squares have equal sides, and rectangles have parallel sides," he said finally.
"Dear God, I learned that at three years old," I said. "We have our work cut out for us, Ginseng. I hope you're ready."
Despite the fact that Gin's ignorance on the subject could fill a library, I found Gin to be a very apt student, grasping concepts quickly and recalling them with ease. That one night we covered the properties of all polygons, and started delving into Trigonometry before Gin nearly fell asleep in his own ink.
"That's enough for one night," I said, barely suppressing a yawn myself.
"Rapunzel you taught me more tonight than my tutors did in a year," Gin told me. "You're probably the most intellectually accomplished person I've ever met. If you ever came back home, you'd put all the scholars up there to shame."
"That's not difficult to achieve," I retorted. "I'm not a genius; you've just never met a properly intelligent being. Rihanna is far more knowledgeable than I. She taught me everything I knew." But I felt heat rise in my cheeks at the compliment.
"She doesn't seem like a monster, and yet you're so determined to ensure we never meet," Gin noted.
Oh Lord, not this argument again.
"She will tear you to pieces," I told him firmly. "She's allowed four people into her life and everyone else can burn in hell for all she cares."
Gin shook his head. "I don't see how anyone could survive with that kind of attitude. Harboring that kind of hatred will kill you."
Something about Gin's patronizing tone, coupled with such an ignorant, naive statement and the urge to protect Rihanna, ignited something in me. I exploded on him.
"It's not hatred, Ginseng, it's a survival tactic! You reject people before they reject you. Rihanna wasn't born with such philosophies, she learned them through suffering. You're the beloved crown prince – what can you possibly know of absolute rejection and the suffering it brings? And yet you have the gall to say such things. Harboring ridiculous and childish naivety – that's what kills you!"
I was so angry I could barely look at him, but yet a small part of me feared Gin's reaction to my outburst. Would it anger him in turn and he walk out on me? Would he share an outburst of his own and criticize me as I had done him?
But Gin, instead, stared at me for a moment in contemplative silence.
"I'm sorry," he said. "You're right. I know nothing about the circumstances that made Rihanna into the woman she is today. I know few of yours. It just . . . angers me. You shouldn't have to have that kind of philosophy. You, and your godmother have so much to offer the world, you shouldn't have to shield yourselves from it." He shook his head, fire in his eyes. "I don't see how you can live with that kind of loneliness."
How did this man do it? Just when I expected him to spew ignorant and ill conceived babble, how did this spoiled, naïve prince speak the words in my heart? Gin knew almost nothing of my past, and yet he could tell me presently the injustices storming in my soul that I'd struggled with for the better part of twelve years.
"Loneliness is preferable to inevitable rejection," I said. Raw honestly spilled from me, the kind I only whispered to my pillow when I woke up in the middle of the night with damp cheeks. "I'm above such slander and disrespect, and trivial social relationships are a small price to pay for my dignity."
"There's a big difference between trivial social relationships and real friendship," Gin pointed out.
"I don't set my expectations that high."
An odd look flashed across Gin's eyes. "Am I a trivial social relationship then?"
"You're an anomaly. A freak, if you will. No nomenclature exists for you."
Gin laughed, the mood lightened considerably.
"I think I can be satisfied with that."
He suddenly yawned and stretched his arms above his head, much like my mother's cat. A smooth ribbon of torso exposed itself just above the line of his breeches. I saw the firelight reflect off his tanned skin, and quickly averted my eyes.
"Do you normally stay awake this late? No wonder you sleep in every morning," he said between yawns.
"Genius has its price," I told him smugly. "I suppose I can't have you sleep outside tonight. If it's my fault you catch sick and die they'll imprison me for sure. I have a couple spare blankets for you."
I grabbed those, and my spare pillow, from the foot of my bed and set them on the floor next to the fireplace.
"You're going to let me sleep in here?" Gin said, eyebrows raised.
"No. I rather thought the roof would be more acceptable," I said, rolling my eyes. "Of course you're sleeping in here. Where else would you sleep?"
"Right outside the front door?" he suggested.
Oh yes. I'd forgotten about the small space in front of the stairs.
"The floor's damp down there," I said. "I'm not having you ruin my mother's blankets for the sake of propriety - and when do you suddenly care about that Prince I-work-in-my-tunic-only Ginseng?"
Gin grinned at me. "This is true." He began unfolding the blankets and making up his bed.
"Just don't say a word to my father," I warned him before heading to bed myself. "Being royalty will not save you from a beheading."
"Duly noted. Good night, Rapunzel."
I took a drink of water before tucking myself into bed. Though daybreak was practically only a few hours away, and the rain lashing a lullaby against my shudders, I found sleep not easy to obtain. Just when I began to drift off, I was jolted away by the reminder that just a few scant feet away from me was the sleeping, vulnerable body of a man. Gin. And I wouldn't put it past him to sleep shirtless as well.
But eventually pure exhaustion won out and I finally fell asleep. I woke up the next morning groggy and still a bit sleep deprived. A beautiful day met me when I opened my shudders. Judging the position of the sun, I guessed it be around nine o'clock, and yet Gin was nowhere to be seen around my flower beds.
I stumbled slightly out of my room, wiping sleep crust from my eyes, intent on waking that lazy prince up for his duties when I tripped over something. I pitched forward and threw my arms out to brace myself against the stone floor when I landed on something soft and decidedly not a stone floor. It groaned.
"There are other ways to wake me up, Rapunzel."
I found myself, to my great mortification, on top of Gin, one arm braced against his chest and the other on the stone above his head.
Oh dear God. How could I have possibly forgotten he was here?! My father was going to kill me. But not before I committed suicide out of sheer embarrassment first.
I felt Gin sit up, bringing me up with him, cradling me against his chest.
"Rapunzel, if you had wanted some affection all you need to do is ask, you know," he teased. "Though I don't know what your father would say to this sudden forwardness. Are you hurt?"
Oh dear God, he sounded just like Aldan! If I hadn't felt so embarrassed I would have slapped him.
I sprang away from him, as if he burned me, and tried to pretend I didn't desire the ground to swallow me in an inexplicable and sudden sink hole.
"I'm perfectly fine," I said. "Or I would have been if you hadn't sprawled yourself out on my floor like you owned the place."
The corners of Gin's lips quirked upwards. "You're my subject. Of course I own the place," he said.
"I have several books that weigh a considerable amount. Try ruling your country with a permanent concussion," I threatened.
"Good morning Rapunzel. It's lovely to see you too." Gin got to his feet, stretching and yawning.
"I'd get moving if I were you," I said, crossing my arms. "It's nine o'clock and you haven't touched my herb garden. You also have a starving, miserable stallion to feed."
Gin snorted. "Mercury is anything but miserable." But he grabbed the water pail and trekked down stairs like a real trooper. I sighed in relief. Aldan's remarks almost killed me, I wasn't sure my dignity could relieve another experience like that with Gin.
Besides, I didn't have romantic notions for that pampered idiot. The notion was completely ridiculous. As if I'd fall in love with a man who wrote poetry. As if I'd fall in love at all! He didn't even know Clionides Theorem for God's sake!
I gathered the strewn blankets and folded them before grabbing the pillow and returning them to their proper places in my room. Just as I set the pillow on my bed, a strange odor wafted to my nose. I pressed the pillow against my face and breathed.
It smelled like Gin.